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We owe the first prison reform to Juliette di Barolo

The Marquise changed the life of the forced laborers too

  E la marchesa cambiò la vita delle forzate  DCM-005
06 May 2023

It happened on the first Sunday after Easter, April 17, 1814, in a Turin street, the small capital of a kingdom nestled between France and Italy. The Napoleonic whirlwind was behind us. The young Juliette Colbert, heiress to an ancient French aristocracy, and great-granddaughter of that Jean-Baptiste Colbert who had been the powerful finance minister to the “Sun King” Louis XIV of France, had been married to the marquis Tancredi Falletti di Barolo for eight years and lived with him under the Alps, in Turin. That Sunday morning, the marquise was kneeling as the procession passed by and she heard a voice shout from the palace behind her: “We want the soup, not the viaticum!” Shouts and curses followed.

The disturbed marquise wanted to investigate. She impetuously entered the palace from where the screams came and discovered a terrible situation. It was a prison. In the inmates' room, the scene that greeted her was brutal. In her Prison Memoirs, she noted: “Their degraded state caused me pain and shame. Those poor women and I were of the same species, daughters of the same Father, they too were a plant of Heaven, and they had had an age of innocence and were called to the same heavenly inheritance”.

On that day, the Marquise of Barolo saw young and old, ugly, dirty, dressed in rags, lying on filthy straw mattresses in a cold and dark environment. A vertigo of physical and moral degradation from which she emerged shocked and firmly convinced that she had to change the state of things. From that encounter would come an extraordinary experience that changed the history of women's detention, first in Turin, then in Italy and finally throughout Europe. An incredible legacy. Juliette Falletti di Barolo was 29 years old and had no children. With her noble and pious husband, she had been intensely dedicated to charity. She was moved by an intense, powerful faith. It should not come as a surprise that her family came from the Vendée, where she had secretly led the revolt against the atheist revolutionaries.

She had meanwhile married the Italian marquis, whom she had met at the court of the French king before the Revolution. After a few ups and downs, they had settled into his estate. In this small provincial Turin, the beautiful, elegant, rich, and cultured Marquise Juliette, shone in her own light. Sure of herself and her good points, even too much so. 

Building a relationship with the women in prison was a long, uphill journey. It went from tips on how to clean clothes to the distribution of soup. Juliette had to register with the Archconfraternity of Mercy to gain access to the prison cells. Slowly she obtained more time to spend alone with the inmates. At first, she received only scorn when she spoke of repentance, Christian charity, and prayer. Yet she did not give up. She collected money, medicines and clothes, a lot of which were her own. The places improved. The food, too. With humanity finally came trust. In addition, with that, also a certain serenity, and a disposition towards prayer; a first literacy. Five complicated years went by, but then “a more articulated re-education programme was ready”, as historian Simona Trombetta writes, “according to a model that demanded obedience and submission first of all, to be followed by resignation and finally by Christian reward, in the form of small prizes to be distributed to those who had distinguished themselves in cutting, sewing, and had followed with constancy common prayer and religious instruction”. A very particular form of ora et labora [pray and work].

This, in fact, was the revolution introduced by the Marquise of Barolo. Henceforth, a prison was no longer to be merely a place of exclusion from society, but of spiritual and at the same time material re-education. These women, who had been marginalised by society, needed an occupation to emancipate themselves from poverty, to be independent outside prison and not to relapse into crime. At the same time, it was essential to nurture their inner rebirth. Therefore, she said, they had to learn a trade, but it was necessary to separate the men from the women, because promiscuity was a source of scandal and a cause of constant problems. The marquise also pointed out that it was necessary to separate those who was under investigation from those who had been sentenced, because the legal situations and personal perspectives were very different.

Her project was appreciated immensely. She certainly did all the necessary lobbying and was certainly not lacking in impetuous character. This lead to her being entrusted with the second women's prison in Turin. Other ladies came to stand by her. Donations grew, starting with those from the king. Moreover, Piedmont's experience was noticed beyond the borders. Francis Cunningham, brother-in-law of Elizabeth Fry, a London lady, a philanthropist passionate about the miserable lives of the prisoners, a Quaker by religion, also moved by fervent faith, came to visit. From then on, Juliette and Elizabeth began writing to each other frequently. What Fry experienced in London, Juliette did in Turin. And vice versa.

The British Society of Ladies for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners was founded in London in 1817. Four years later, when the Marquise was ready to present an accomplished project to the Piedmont authorities to create a new, modern, civilized women's prison in the city, to be run according to her criteria, Juliette Falletti cited the London experience. She proposed that the inmates be entrusted to a committee of Ladies, who would rely on nuns to run the facility.

Henceforth, the Carcere delle Forzate [Prison of the Forced] was established, to which the Marquise was granted the title of superintendent and even the power to decide who to accept. There was finally light and air, clean beds and blankets, an infirmary, a chapel, rooms where the inmates could work (for example, spinning hemp and linen, making stockings and clothes), and a courtyard. At her own expense, she had flowers and fruit trees planted. As in the Newgate prison in London, on which Elizabeth Fry's attention was focused, in Turin too Juliette prepared the rules and discussed them with the inmates, but playing cards and schnapps were forbidden. Books were permitted, but only those approved by the Ladies and the Chaplain. The Ladies distributed work; two thirds of the profit was distributed immediately, one-third set aside to be handed over when the inmates returned to liberty. To manage the daily running of the prison, the Sisters of St Joseph of Chambery arrived.

However, the Marquise had a broader and more ambitious project. She had witnessed firsthand that poverty, both material and spiritual, was the hidden tragedy behind prison. Therefore, a well-guided return to a free life was needed. In 1823, in a cottage purchased by the government and renovated at her own expense, she founded the Opera Pia del Rifugio, which housed 70 women who had been released from prison, with extremely strict rules. One of these rules was that only the superior could decide when the former inmates were ready to go to work in certain families.

He wanted to prevent a relapse. In 1831, the Refuge for orphan girls under the age of 15 “victims of the most unfortunate circumstances” was founded. This was followed by the St Anne Institute “to instruct and educate girls in a Christian manner and make them good Christians and good mothers of families”. Her charisma took shape in 1834 with the foundation of the Sisters of Saint Anne congregation, which is still active today in Italy and throughout the world for the care and education of the youngest and poorest. In addition, since many women in prison had rediscovered their faith thanks to her catechesis, a second congregation, the Penitent Sisters of St Mary Magdalene (today known as Daughters of Jesus the Good Shepherd), was founded, for those who wanted to redeem their past through prayer and penance. 

In the meantime, the Marquise met a passionate young priest named Don Bosco who became the chaplain of the Refuge. He took charge the Refuge’s young guests, but wanted two rooms for his rascals, who were the Turin’s abandoned boys.

It soon became clear that coexistence between the two was not working out, so they parted company. The marquise demanded that the priest only take care of the young women, stating, “There is enough to do at the Refuge. Don’t look for different occupations”. In response, he, who was the only one who could stand up to her, stated, “I do not seek occupations. With all due respect, I am a priest and not a secretary”.

Their collaboration ended with Don Bosco’s dismissal. However, paradoxically, it was she who got down on her knees in front of the departing saint and continued to help him in his work at Valdocco in favour of poor and straying boys.

It was not an entirely happy conclusion. In 1850, Juliette Falletti came into conflict with the civil authorities in Turin. She did not accept any compromises and wanted to leave the running of the carcere delle Forzate [Forced Prison]. As a show of strength, she demanded to take away all the items with her that she had put in over those thirty years. The result was an endless list of beds, benches, chairs, tables, tablecloths, mattresses, blankets, crockery and so on.

The Marquise had given up everything, but she had won her challenge. The women's prison had become as she had imagined it, i.e. a separate place where work was emancipation but also redemption, run by nuns who were supposed to combine firmness and gentleness, and in Italy, her model held up until 1970, when the nuns were replaced by civil servants.

Many liberal intellectuals of the Italian Risorgimento appreciated it. The famous Silvio Pellico, for example, who was a patriot and had plotted against Austrian rule in Milan. Pellico became famous throughout Europe with his book Le mie prigioni [My Prisons], after being arrested, convicted and imprisoned for ten years in the Spielberg fortress. Once free, he was hired by the Marquises of Barolo and assisted the gentlewoman in her epic action in prison, which he later recounted in the book La marchesa Giulia Falletti di Barolo nata Colbert. Memoirs [The Marquess Giulia Falletti di Barolo née Colbert. Memoirs]. Another publishing success.

This was a summary of so much work. “That place of punishment, so Christianly ordered, acquired the appearance of a sweet and wise monastery, rather than a prison”. In an era of liberalism and anticlericalism, Pellico paid the price for his severe criticism for such a favorable judgement, but he felt indebted and wanted the Marquise to be remembered in this way for all eternity. Together with her, the patriot also entered the Franciscan laity as a tertiary in 1851. Juliette and her husband Tancredi Falletti di Barolo were declared venerable by the Catholic Church on December 21, 2018.

A journalist with the Italian national newspaper, “La Stampa”